Okay, before we embark on this, I’m going to attempt to explain the British class system again.
At some point in every British gathering or dinner party the subject of class raises its head. It’s a complex, thorny issue, and a curious one. Roughly speaking, the nation is divided into three bands, working, middle and upper, but only one of these – the middle – is subdivided into a further three bands of lower, middle and upper. Working out where you stand is made more difficult because the middle band is the only mutable one. In your lifetime it’s likely that you’ll move up a peg. This is because of a/ external factors such as quality of life, and b/ personal determination. The working and upper classes are birthrights – the middle is not.
This means that although I was (I imagine) lower-middle I am now middle-middle. My parents were a scientist and the company secretary for a legal firm respectively – both white-collar careers requiring qualifications – but they were always broke. However, they owned their own house by the time they were 30. I went to a guild-school, one of the oldest in England, and got there by passing exams, but this school became fee-paying after I left. I ran my own company of around 75 people and bought my own home at 23 in central London for about £20k (read that and weep, modern Londoners – yes, it was possible once). So who are the upper-middle? They’re the privately educated ones with more land and chains of companies.
My mother had a complicated notion of class. If I may quote from my memoir ‘Paperboy’:
I was not allowed to mix with the kids from the next street because they lived above shops and were therefore ‘common’. Kath had a peculiar sense of what constituted commonness. Heinz Baked Beans, football, spam, The Daily Mirror, council flats, motorbikes, public displays of emotion, playing in the street, television, shouting, swearing, braces, the Labour Party, plimsolls worn with trousers, over-familiarity and failure to hold a knife and fork properly were unconscionable to someone who had been raised in a household that had only allowed reading, praying and going for brisk walks on the Sabbath. She didn’t like loud coughing either, although she was prepared to excuse Mr Hill next door, who had a cough like a duck’s death-rattle, because he had contracted it in the trenches. The fact that my mother did not know who her parents were was immaterial; it was a matter of how you were raised, nurture over nature, that was important. Grace, silence, acquiescence and politeness were everything, as was knowing your place and staying in it. Her own mother might have been a prostitute for all she knew, but it did not excuse going out on the Sabbath without gloves.
I’m glad we’ve got that settled. I did warn you.
So, last week I performed at the South Bank Literary Festival in the Royal Festival Hall, where the bongs of Big Ben invaded the room and the London Eye glittered as my backdrop. Outside, there was a very posh street market serving all manner of food. It was pouring with rain, and as I passed through I heard several gems of middle-class conversation, including;
‘One simply gets SO tired of modern dance.’
‘I can’t trust my nanny to buy organic at Waitrose.’
And this gem:
‘I must say John Lewis has a very inadequate selection of prosciutto tongs.’
Who knew you could get such things, let alone a selection?
Of course it’s the middle-classes who feel most put-upon and cash-strapped, overtaxed and burdened with school fees.Crushed from both sides, they feel aggrieved and protective. Alan Clark famously said that the middle-classes were ‘people who buy their own furniture’ (i.e. they don’t inherit it). And one thinks of the proletarian washerwoman singing as she hangs out laundry in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, complacently happy with her lot while Winston Smith tears himself apart about ideologies.
The middle-class lot is not a happy one. But it’s always fun to write about. I thought about posting the famous John Cleese & the Two Ronnies sketch about class, but then I found this updated version: